Tuesday, February 7, 2012

You Aren't What You Write

You may be what you eat, but you aren’t what you write. People write something lousy and think, “I’m a crappy writer.” But writing something crappy doesn’t make you crap. It makes the writing crap. That’s all. There are excellent writers who produce crap sometimes. (I’m looking at you, Woody Allen.) And most writers create a LOT of crap that you never see.

There is a saying that you should never compare your first draft to someone else’s finished book, and that is very good advice. People assume that authors send in a manuscript, and then an editor moves around a few commas, and then the book gets published. Um, wrong! What happens is more like this: The author noodles around for a while. Then the author starts to write a draft. A million years later, the draft is finished. The author breathes a deep sigh of relief, and sends it off to an editor. The editor ignores the manuscript for months. The author starts to get antsy and begins annoying her friends by repeatedly asking their opinion on whether or not she should noodge the editor. Then, after finally reading it, the editor writes an editorial letter, which contains what we call the “praise sandwich.” That is two small nuggets of praise, “The characters are rich and complex and the setting is vibrant and eerie,” followed by the truth, ie, “This book has no plot.”

The author then cries and complains to her husband and spends months reworking the manuscript and cutting out her favorite bits and trying to come up with clever new ones. Then she sends it back to the editor. The editor writes another editorial letter and this time encloses a marked-up manuscript with “make funny” written next to all of the author’s favorite jokes.

So the author thrashes around for another few months, then it’s off to the editor. Then it’s wash, rinse, repeat until the work is finally done…or at least done enough to be published.

But is it the “writer” who needs improvement? No, it’s the work. This is the process. Michelangelo said that his sculptures were always there, he just had to cut away the rest of the marble to reveal them. This was not done quickly. In the same way, the nugget of our work is always present there. You just have to keep working to get down to it.

If you confuse your self and your work, you won’t want to do anything difficult, because revision by definition implies that “you” need improvement. You don’t.

In the words of my old boss, Dan Weiss, “They’re just books.” That’s all. 

1 comment:

  1. This made me laugh out loud. Especially "make funny." Yes. When I edit my own work, I often write that too.